By Deo Lubega, Patron of the Mountain Club of Uganda, November 2015
From 11th – 15th November 2015 the UNDP/UTB/UNWTO under their “Inclusive Markets in Tourism” project organized a Familiarization trip to Mbale and Mount Elgon which was code named Uganda’s Lesser Known East and I was among the participants selected to go for this trip. We were hosted by the Eastern Entrepreneurship and Tourism Network EETN which is the Tourism cluster serving Eastern Uganda, EETN is composed of tourism service providers in the private sector and Mount Elgon National Park UWA, their mission is to develop and promote tourism in this region.
According to the itinerary on Thursday 12th November we were slated to do a Forest Walk into the Montane Forest zone of Mount Elgon National Park from the Kapkwai Exploration Center and then go for a Coffee Experience among the peasant coffee farmers of Kapchorwa, the optional activity was the abseiling on a rock face next to Sipi Falls. We did not have the Forest Walk because all the UWA rangers of the region were having a seminar at Moroto, so the people who were to take us on this walk were not available; the organizers then suggested that we would do the abseiling next to the Sipi Falls if they were people willing to give it a shot.
We were a group of 6 tour operators, 6 members from the Fort Portal tourism cluster, 3 people from the UTB/UNDP project and 4 people from EETN. When the idea was mooted I stood out and said I will be the first person to abseil and then some members of the group exclaimed “no way” their reasoning was, I being a person of advanced age they doubted my fitness and mental firmness to try this dangerous activity. We were served our lunch at the Twalight Sipi Camp site where we could view the Sipi Falls from top to the bottom and then we were shown the spot where we were to do the abseiling and informed that the falls were 100m high from top to down.
As we were having lunch I escorted my food with 2 bottles of Eagle Lager beer and then I started bragging to the members that for the abseiling I am going first. Three members from EETN said “No sir” we will not allow you to abseil after downing Eagle Lager and they were seconded by Eric from the AUTO secretariat when he emphasized “Mr. Deo you are not abseiling”. After lunch we proceeded to the Crow’s Nest Camp where we were given a briefing on the exercise and the experience to expect, we were told about the other climbing routes available on the faces near the Sipi Falls Lodge, this was by the supervisor/instructor of the abseiling activity. Thereafter the presenter invited questions, my hand was the first one up and then I asked.
What kind of Harness are we using? Body or Waist Harness? The group burst out into laughter with the notion that I was cracking a joke. (In reality none of the members had ever heard of that item) the presenter then said “do not laugh he has asked a pertinent question”. He answered that we would use a Waist Harness and then explained to them the importance of a Harness in abseiling. Then I came with a second question; Are we using a figure 8 descender or double lock karabiners for anchoring to the harness? This time the group became silent and they just listened, he answered that we would use a belay device loop. Then I asked my last question; Are you going to use a top belay or a bottom belay? He answered that we would use a top belay.
At this moment the group realized that they were moving with a senior rock climber among them, immediately I turned out to be an INSPIRATION whoever had been advocating for my not going first request, changed his/her opinion and the issue was now “if Deo (read mzee) is going then I should also go or at least try”. Then I gave a chance to the others to ask questions but nobody had a question. Finally I asked the instructor; What was the grade of the climbing route (face) he had showed us? He said that they were using the Italian grading system which he was not conversant with, so he could not give me a discreet answer. I tried to suggest to him if the grade could be the EVS 6? The group then burst out laughing again this time they had the notion that I was concocting terms that were not existent (faking). Then I explained to them that it means Extremely Very Severe 6! In the English grading system. Nobody came out to challenge me on that, instead Eric of AUTO exclaimed we have come with a moving Encyclopedia you cannot catch him. Then they started hamming EVS6.
After the briefing we moved to the Lacam Lodge, which is closer to Sipi Falls and here Edward Lewis the UNDP Consultant announced that whoever would wish to do the abseiling stand next to Deo, nine people joined me and we made a total of 10, we then registered in the Book and then signed the disclaimer clauses, after the registration the instructor together with his assistants collected the equipment (harnesses and ropes) then we proceeded to the top of the Falls on the foot path to the top there is a bridge where you cross the river whose waters are the ones that drop 100m off the cliff to make Sipi Falls we cross this bridge and then reach the anchor spot(point).
It is here that we are handed the harnesses to try out those which fit us, as the instructor and his aides set up the anchors and drop the ropes, I show the team the figure 8 descenders and the belay loop I talked about, then I give tips (in a whisper) to Rachel and Ramlat the two ladies who have decided to try the activity on what to do to remove the scary bit of the exercise. When the instructor is done one of the aides goes on the rope as he demonstrates to us how to go on the rope and on how to step of the cliff to the rock face and he proceeds with the abseil, within 5 minutes he is off the rope and the rope is free and it is pulled up to the top to remove the harness and then tossed back down.
Then my turn comes on, and I put on the harness, as I do so it starts drizzling however this does not turn me off, after fitting the harness I go the anchor point I am told to step on the first pipe and then I lean back I do this with ease the instructor then tells me to step on the lower (second) pipe and I do that with ease then I move down (read abseil) the drizzle increases and then he tells me to hold my break for a photograph which I do and I continue to abseil down. The first 10m are easy as you can place your feet on the rock surface, as you go down you are at a distance away from the rock face, you hang in the air with your break like a spider. At this point I make a mistake, instead of standing upright I lean back and hence my weight does not take me down as fast as it could do if I had stood up. I abseil slowly and I try to increase my speed by pushing the rope with my left arm as I use the right arm for the break.
By the time I am 50m through the Falls, I begin to feel tired and when I look down I see I still have a long distance to cover, so I am forced to push on determined to finish, the left arm becomes overworked but I persist, at 80m down I change my position and stand upright here the speed improves, it stops drizzling but the sprinkle of water from the falls increases and within 2 minutes I am soaked with water I push on until I eventually reach the bottom, where the belay man receives me at this point I am all wet as the sprinkling of water from the falls is intense. When I touch down the ground (100m) the belay man removes the rope and the harness then he congratulates me for making it. He then attaches the harness on the rope and it is pulled up for the next person. He asks the local guides to lead me to the path that takes you to the base (which is at the top) but I tell the guide that I will have to wait for 3 members, as I wait I watch and cheer up Charles the second person who does it well and with ease. He is followed by Ramlat a lady we also cheer her and she gets the confidence until she makes it down, she is followed by Tom. When Tom reaches down we decide to move on to the base camp, we are led through a foot path that is 80-85 degrees steep, it begins to drizzle again and the trail becomes slippery this makes the ascent hard and more demanding in energy output.
We move slowly to avoid slipping and falling until we reach the Top when we are all wet but feeling very happy and rewarded for having done the adventure. When we reached the base camp the other members who did not attempt the abseiling welcomed us with cheers. Sarah of UTB then mentioned to me that “Deo you kept your word and went first” from here you inspired the rest who had volunteered to try, even Rachel who had given up after her first try was forced to reconsider and threw away her fear and she eventually made it.
Abseiling was the first activity I learnt in 1988 when we did it at Namilyango Rock after we had resuscitated the Mountain Club in 1987, I continued to do it for the 10 years I was Hon Secretary and I had taken a break (read retirement). This trip gave me an opportunity to come out of retirement and relive my skill, I must say that all the heights I had abseiled on before were not as high as SIPI (100m) so it was and it is really scary but I did it. I cleared the myth that it is an activity for the young and adventurous ones for you to enjoy it. If you are ever going to try it on Sipi you must not have a phobia (fear) for heights, you must be a strong hearted individual (not faint hearted) looking down 100m with your body perpendicular to a rock face does send some chills in your spine and instinctively the fear of falling comes in. How you handle and eradicate this fear is what will make you breakthrough.
Deo Lubega is the Patron of the Mountain Club of Uganda, he served as Hon Secretary for 10 years (1987-1997), Treasurer for 3 years (2000-2002). These days he guides the Club on the annual “Kampala Seven Hills Walk”